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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's vaccination campaign against the H1N1 flu strain is not proceeding as fast as it should be partly because people are needlessly worried about the safety of the vaccine, officials said on Friday.
Some 125 people in China have died of swine flu, but the country began a mass vaccination program in September and has inoculated more than 32 million people to date.
That campaign, however, seems to be floundering just as the country heads into winter and ahead of the Lnar New Year holiday in February, when millions of people travel back to their home towns -- potentially taking flu with them.
"Generally speaking, vaccination work has been proceeding smoothly, but recently progress has been quite slow in some areas," Health Ministry spokesman Deng Haihua told a news conference.
"Experts expect that the next one to two months will be key in the fight to prevent H1N1," he added. "After new year comes the lunar festival, where people will be on the move in large numbers across the country, which will put yet more pressure on preventing the spread of the virus."
Liang Wannian, head of the ministry's health emergency office, said there were several reasons for the slower-than-expected progress in vaccinations, though he did not say how many people they had hoped to reach by this time.
"I don't rule out that some people have worries over the safety of the vaccine," Liang said. "Perhaps our publicity work about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine has not reached everyone it should have.
"We will lose the opportunity to effectively prevent and control the disease if we don't accelerate this campaign," he added.
The government has repeatedly said that the vaccine is safe, as has the World Health Organization.
Deng, the spokesman, said that "abnormal reactions" to the vaccine were at about one in one million, well within internationally accepted norms and parameters.
Another concern which has been expressed is that China may have had more flu deaths than has been officially reported. China's death toll of 125 compares with nearly 10,000 in the United States.
Well-known Chinese doctor Zhong Nanshan said last month that he doubted the official death numbers from the influenza strain, saying some areas had not been testing deaths from severe pneumonia and treating them as cases of ordinary pneumonia.
Zhong is respected by many people in China for his candor and work in fighting SARS in 2003, when nationwide panic and international alarm erupted after it emerged that officials hid or underplayed the spreading epidemic.
Ministry official Liang said they had been rigorously enforcing laws against cover-ups of disease outbreaks.
"To date, we have not received any information about cover-ups. If such a thing happens, the Health Ministry will take severe steps under the law," he added.
Editing by David Fox